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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-28 and Isaiah 42:1-9
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Brian McLaren calls Jesus’ visit with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi a fieldtrip. I think that’s an interesting framing (it reinforces the idea of Jesus as a teacher) and, if nothing else, it lifts up the importance of the location.
And the location is important. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of their base in Galilee. The location has a long history as a place of worship. Canaanites worshiped the god Baal there. Later, the Greek god Pan was worshiped there. Eventually, the Romans replaced the Greeks and around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was part of the region the Romans had Herod the Great controlling.
When Herod the Great died, the area he ruled was divided among his surviving sons to rule. This area north and east of the Jordan was placed by the Roman emperor under Philip’s control. He changed the name of the town to Caesarea Philippi – the first part of the name honoring his patron, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor; the second part of the name honoring himself (can you say, “ego issues”?). The second part of the name actually did serve a practical purpose. There was another community called Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, so calling this community Caesarea Philippi did distinguish it. But, yeah, ego issues.
Imagine what it would have been like for a rabbi to take a group of Jews to this Caesar-ville. You walk the streets and are reminded, simply by the location, that a foreign army occupies your country. You walk the streets and you are reminded that you are not free. It might be like a Native American teacher taking a group to Wounded Knee or a Japanese teacher taking a class to Hiroshima.
There in the middle of a place where many gods have been worshiped over the centuries, there in the middle of the latest Caesar-ville, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This vignette takes place in Mark and Luke as well, only the question is a little different. In Mark and Luke, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people (or the crowds) say that I am?” In Matthew, the question is, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” So there’s a reason Matthew uses “Son of Man.”
In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus uses “Son of Man,” he is almost using it as a first person pronoun, so at one level Jesus is essentially asking the same question as in Mark and Luke. But that’s not the only way Matthew uses “Son of Man.” There is a strong association of “Son of Man” in Matthew’s gospel with “the Son of Man” being the judge at the end of time and of “the Son of Man” having a kingdom.
So, here we are in Caesar-ville, and Jesus is asking who the people say the final judge is. His disciples’ answers express some of the theology of the day. Maybe the Son of Man was a prophet of old. Maybe the Son of Man was John the Baptist (who has been killed by this point in Matthew’s narrative).
As I read Matthew’s version of the exchange, I feel like Jesus knows the answer he going to get to his next question. “But who do you say that I am?” The obvious answer is, “the Son of Man,” the one who will judge the nations at the end of time, the one who has the alternative kingdom. I don’t get that feeling in Mark’s and Luke’s versions, but here in Matthew’s version Jesus’ second question feels almost like a leading question.
Peter offers the answer: “You are the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ), the Son of the living God.” Not just the Son of Man, mind you, but the Son of the living God. To our ears, this sounds like a theological claim, but given the setting, it is as much a political statement as it is a theological statement. In Greek, Christ, in Hebrew, Messiah – it means “the one anointed as liberating king.”
“To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’
“Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods,’ but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and live God.”
Here’s what McLaren says about Jesus response to Peter’s confession. “[Jesus] speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centers of evil.’ Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically-charged setting.”
Most (maybe even all) Jews who thought God would send the Messiah during the Roman occupation assumed the Messiah to be a liberating king by being the leader of an army – an army that would prevail against the powers that oppressed them. This is the Messiah Peter was expecting. And if Jesus truly was the Messiah, then the one thing he cannot be is defeated. He will conquer and capture the enemies. He must torture and kill the enemies. But that’s not what Jesus says will happen.
Yes, he’s going to travel south to Jerusalem, the seat of power. But he’s not going with an army and he’s not going to wage a war. He is going to be conquered, captured, tortured, and killed by the very agents of oppression that the Messiah is supposed to save them from. And then be raised.
But Peter doesn’t seem to hear that last part. He takes Jesus aside. That’s not the way the story is supposed to go. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” “Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, Satanic, the opposite of God’s plan.”
Since the beginning, Jesus has taught a different way, a third way to over come the principalities and powers. If you’re not a part of the Adult Sunday School class, I encourage you to join. And if you can’t join, I encourage you to read the book they are reading and discussing anyway. They are about halfway through The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink, and in it Wink speaks directly to today’s gospel lesson.
“The Domination System,” he says, “grows out of the fundamental belief that violence must be used to overcome violence.” Thus, the Domination System is stuck in a cycle of violence. As a program to overcome the Domination System, the kin-dom of God must overcome this cycle of violence, so that is what Jesus did. That is why Jesus said that he is going to Jerusalem and why he would be killed. The cross laid bare the domination system and refused to play its game of cycling violence.
“When the Powers That Be [that’s Wink’s term for the principalities and powers of oppression] catch the merest whiff of God’s new order, they automatically mobilize all their might to crush it. Even before the full fury of the Powers was unleashed on Jesus, he apparently predicted the outcome of the confrontation [as we heard in today’s scripture lesson]. The Powers are so immense, and the opposition so weak, that every attempt at fundamental change seems doomed to failure. Merely winning does not satisfy the Powers; they must win big, in order to demoralize opposition before it can gain momentum. Gratuitous violence, mocking derision, and intimidating brutality in the means of execution typify the Power – all this is standard, unexceptional. Jesus died just like all the others who challenged the world-dominating Power.
“Something went awry in Jesus’ case, however. The Powers scourged him with whips, but each stroke of the lash unveiled their own illegitimacy. They mocked him with a robe and a crown of thorns, spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed, ridiculing him with the ironic ovation, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ – not knowing how their acclamation would echo down the centuries. They stripped him naked and crucified him in humiliation, all unaware that this very act had stripped the Powers of the last covering that disguised the towering wrongness of the whole way of life that their violence defended. They nailed him to the cross, not realizing that with each hammer’s blow they were nailing up, for the whole world to see, the affidavit by which the Domination System would be condemned.”
We heard our invitation to participate in this work in our gospel lesson. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Wink interprets this for us: “One does not become free from the Powers by defeating them in a frontal attack. Rather, one dies to their control … [W]e are liberated, not by striking back at what enslaves us – for even striking back reveals that we are still controlled by violence – but by a willingness to die rather than submit to its command.…
“We must die to such things as racism, false patriotism, greed, and homophobia. We must, in short, die to the Domination System in order to live authentically.”
What Wink is saying is just as paradoxical as what Jesus said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” But, as Wink points out, “Dying to the Power is not, finally, a way of saving our souls, but of making ourselves expendable in the divine effort to rein in the recalcitrant Powers. When Jesus said, ‘Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it’ (Luke 17:33), he drew a line in the sand and asked if we would step across – step out of one entire world, where violence is always the ultimate solution, into another world, where the spiral of violence is finally broken by those willing to absorb its impact with their own flesh. That approach to living is nonviolence, Jesus’ ‘third way.’”
Jesus’ third way is intensely powerful. It is a way that is alternative to both the way of remaining victim and the way of participating in the cycle of violence. It is a way that both refused to submit to evil and to oppose evil on its own terms. It is a way that is both assertive and nonviolent. It is the way of the kin-dom of God.
I’ve spoken of it before, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would like to share an example of how it is at work today.
Erdem Gunduz was called “the standing man of Turkey.” His story goes back to June of 2013. The Turkish government had cleared Taksim Square after weeks of clashes with the police. That “might have seemed like the end of it for many protesters, until [this] lone man decided to take a stand, literally, against the government. For more than six hours [one] Monday night, Erdem Gunduz stood motionless in Taksim Square, passively ignoring any prodding or harassment from police and people passing by.” He stood alone for hours, and then other people began to join him, silently staring toward the cultural center. By midnight, several hundred people had joined Gunduz’s protest.
“As word of the standing man spread across the Internet, Turks adopted the hashtag #duranadam, which means ‘standing man’ in Turkish. Before long, people in other parts of Turkey began their own standing protests in solidarity with the man.”
The Standing Man of Turkey and those who followed his lead did not stop the domination system in their country. But they found a way to resist it, to refuse both to be victims of it and to be participants in its violence. They found Jesus’ third way.
When theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass looks at what is going on in this nation and in other countries (especially in western Europe), she see troubling evidence of the domination system at work. She says that there are many causes, including economic anxiety, racism, generalized fear, misogyny, etc. “But,” she says, “this has been primarily motivated by a idolatrous vision of God – one that believes God is a white-skinned, gendered Judge, Father, and King who sits on a throne in heaven. They want that God to punish their enemies, heretics, and evildoers, and bless them, His faithful people, with material prosperity and power – and to return everything to their imagined vision of Eden.
“It isn’t that complicated. There was deep appeal to a myth, the primary myth at the center of European Christianity.
“Through time, this myth was rejected by many – mystics, saints, and seers – but was perpetrated by a church of the rich and powerful. We are living in that story still. A story where the empire of wealth uses a convenient God to enslave the many; and where a sacred resistance grows to protest on behalf of truly God – the One who is Compassion, Who is Love.
“Jesus hates that we have used him in service to a myth of power. For he came and still cries out against this idolatry.”
Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong; or
… what it means for you to take up your cross and follow Jesus in your life and in the midst of current events; or
… this: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” Listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.
 This is also McLaren’s term.
 The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abington Press, 2009) s.v. “Son of Man,” 345.
 McLaren, op. cit., 117.
 Ibid, 117-118.
 Ibid, 118.
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 91.
 Ibid, 82-83.
 Ibid, 93-95.
 Ibid. 97.
 See Chapter 5 of The Powers That Be for a full explanation of Jesus’ third way.
 Andy Carvin, “The ‘Standing Man’ Of Turkey: Act Of Quiet Protest Goes Viral,” The Two Way, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/06/18/193183899/the-standing-man-of-turkey-act-of-quiet-protest-goes-viral (posted 18 June 2013; accessed 16 February 2017).
 Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post on 7 February 2017 https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154577500398500 (accessed 18 February 2017). I have changed what she had as ALL CAPS to italics.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 11, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and Matthew 5:38-47
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Whatever happened to the overture?
I suspect there are enough theatre nerds in this congregation (I count myself among them – obviously) that I can’t be the only one who’s wondered this. The musical theatre overture has, for the most part, disappeared. And it’s been fading away for a long time. According to a National Public Radio story from eight years ago, one reason the overture has pretty much disappeared is money. Tighter budgets have led to smaller orchestras, which means simpler orchestrations, which means no overture. An article in The New York Times from ten years ago says the demise of the overture goes back now 40 years. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.
“Who could forget the great overture to ‘A Chorus Line’? First there’s that infectious hop-step vamp from the song ‘One.’ Then come some of the show’s most familiar melodies: ‘I Hope I Get It,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘What I Did for Love.’ Finally the orchestra swings back for a rousing half-chorus of ‘One’ that would make even gouty musical-theater-phobes want to leap to their feet with excitement.
“Oh, wait – ‘A Chorus Line’ doesn’t have an overture.…
“Back in 1975, a month before the original production’s debut, Marvin Hamlisch did write a ‘Chorus Line’ overture like the one described. But the director, Michael Bennett, and the show’s other creators decided not to include it, fearing it would destroy the illusion that the audience was watching an actual audition as the lights went up.…
“Thanks in part to ‘A Chorus Line,’ the Broadway orchestra and the Broadway overture would rarely emerge from that obscurity again.”
No, I haven’t lost my mind, and, yes, I do remember that this is a sermon. I just want to remind you of what an overture is – or was. The overture, typically several minutes long, was “made up of melodies heard later in the show and [was] played by an orchestra before the curtain [went] up.” It introduced musical themes to the audience, acting “like a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter.”
And that’s exactly what Matthew is doing in the first two chapters of his gospel, the chapters where Matthew talks about Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is an idea that is new to me, introduced by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas. Luke does it, too, with his birth and childhood narrative, also the first two chapters of his gospel. Both authors introduce the themes that will play out in the rest of their gospels.
The big theme we hear in Matthew’s overture is that Jesus is the new Moses. It’s here in our first lesson. Just as Moses was born under an evil ruler, the Pharaoh, Jesus is born under the evil King Herod. Just as Moses needed to escape the slaughter of Jewish newborns, Jesus needs to escape the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.
Crossan and Borg go on to suggest that the number five is important. There are in this overture, five dreams move the story along and five prophetic fulfillments are cited. This calls to mind the Torah, they say, because it is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also called “the books of Moses.” And like the five books of Moses, the main body of Matthew’s gospel is easily divided into five sections:
- the Law discourse (the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reinterprets the law Moses received – on a mountain);
- the missionary discourse;
- the parable discourse;
- the community discourse; and
- the eschatological discourse.
Borg and Crossan point to other ways this overture introduces the theme that Jesus is the new Moses, but I don’t want to get lost in the weeds (or bulrushes) digging into these. Instead, I want to you hear this general idea:
The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke – their overtures – are important not because any of it happened historically (and aside from Mary being pregnant and giving birth, is likely that little else in the story happened historically). No, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are important because they tell us where the story is going.
And where does Matthew tell us where the story is going? Just in the reading we heard today, we hear both that non-Jews will seek Jesus and that wise ones will seek him. We hear that Jesus will be the new Davidic king (a subtheme in the overture lifted up elsewhere). We hear that the principalities and powers will find Jesus threatening and will seek to kill him. We hear that God has an escape plan for Jesus, that death won’t have the final word.
Do you see one reason why it’s important to keep Herod in Christmas? The overture doesn’t work without him.
Of course it’s not the only reason to keep Herod in Christmas. Any first or second century Jew would know what a despot Herod the Great was. Yes, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, an important sign of Jewish identity. But he was a puppet king, dependent on the Roman empire for his status. “Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labor for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons.”
You can see why it was not a far-fetched storyline to have Herod kill all the infant and toddler boys in Bethlehem in Matthew’s overture. There are some important questions that are raised by having Herod in this story. We know how Herod managed power and dealt with threats. How will we? We know how Herod used violence to get his way. Will we?
“Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power.
“The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.”
Brian McLaren points out, “All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grand children. Most of the [uniformed] casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”
By keeping Herod in Christmas, we are forced to grapple with what we believe about God. “Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?”
Our second lesson answers these question – but in a whole new way. From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus holds up the ethic of love as the real fulfillment of the law. And this love needs to be deep, deep enough to turn your enemies into friends. When faced with oppression, the typical responses are fight or flight. “An eye for an eye” is a call to meet violence with violence. The other response is to let the violence crush you.
Jesus offers a third way: meet violence with non-violent activism. Because someone would only strike you with their right hand, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, they’ve backhanded you. Doing that means they are treating you as an inferior. By offering your left cheek, you are saying, “If you want to hit me, you’ll have to hit me as your equal.” If someone sues you for your only possession, the clothes off your back, give them your underwear, too. If they reduce you to being naked, they have lost face. The only person who would force you to go a mile would be a Roman soldier. They were known for forcing locals to carry their packs and were restricted to only forcing that for one mile. By insisting that you go two miles, you’ll get the occupying soldier in trouble.
There is a third way, Jesus says, to fight for the dignity of the oppressed without becoming an oppressor.
“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus,” McLaren says, “is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with the vulnerable … in defiance of the [oppressors] who see [the vulnerable] as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation with the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.
“Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season, we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long a children pay the price, and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.
“… In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and come near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness [of the story] of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.”
Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture readings that caught your interest; or
… a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness; or
… the idea that Matthew’s birth narrative is an “overture” to his gospel; or
… to hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and power-hungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby—then observe what happens in your heart and offer a prayer of response.
 Jeff Lunden, “Broadway’s Best Musical Revival: The Overture?” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91480130 (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).
 Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/theater/01gree.html (posted 1 October 2006; accessed 8 December 2016).
 Lunden, op. cit.
 Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 41-42.
 Ibid, 42-46.
 Ibid, 71-72.
 Ibid, 72-73.
 Ibid, 73.
 Ibid, 73-74.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 24, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20 and Acts 4:1-22
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Martin Luther gets the credit for writing the lyrics to our opening hymn. He also gets credit for the tune, though some the tune was one sung at local bars, and originally had much less pomp and a lot more swing.
Some people have an immediate negative reaction to the hymn. They don’t like all the language about evil.
“For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe,
with craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.”
Oh, we are doomed by the craft and power of the great adversary.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear for God has willed the truth to triumph through us.
The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them;
their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure,
one little word shall fell them.”
That word, we learn in verse 4, is Christ.
The world Luther describes in this hymn is one in which a great struggle is taking place between the forces of evil and the forces of good. “Pish posh,” some say. “The world is the world and these notions of spirits is poppycock.” And I joined them for a time, until I got to reading Walter Wink.
Walter Wink’s seminal work is, I think, his trilogy of books on power. Heavy reading – a little heavier than I was willing to do. Then, in 1998, he wrote The Powers that Be, an accessible distillation of this previous work about power. This is from the introduction.
“All of us deal with the Powers That Be. They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families. But the Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. These Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful. We could do nothing without them. Who wants to do without timely mail delivery or well-maintained roads? But the Powers are also the source of unmitigated evils.
“A corporation routinely dumps known carcinogens into a river that is the source of drinking water for towns downstream. Another industry attempts to hook children into addiction to cigarettes despite evidence that a third of them will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses. A dictator wages war against his own citizens in order to maintain his grasp on power. A contractor pays off a building inspector so he can violate code and put up a shoddy and possibly unsafe structure. A power plant exposes its employees to radioactive poisoning; the employee who attempts to document these safety infractions is forced off the road by another car and dies. All her documents are missing.
“Welcome to the world of the Powers.”
The powers that be can promote goodness or evil. As Wink pointed out, when the powers make sure everyone in a community has access to emergency medical services, the powers are working for good. When, in an effort to save the municipality money (which a first glance is a good thing), the powers allow the water system in Flint, Michigan, to be and remain poisoned, the powers are working for evil.
The powers, Wink points out, “are not merely the people in power or the institutions they staff. Managers are, in fact, more or less interchangeable. Most people in managerial positions would tend to make the same sorts of moves. A great many of their decisions are being made for them by the logic of the market, the pressures of competition, and/or the cost of workers. Executives can be more humane. But a company owner who decides to raise salaries and benefits will soon face challenges from competitors who pay less. Greater forces are at work – unseen Powers – that shape the present and dictate the future.”
Traditional Christian religious imagery personifies these powers as angels and demons fluttering about in the sky. But we don’t need to embrace that literalism to embrace the reality of the spiritual forces that are at work, impinging on and in some cases determining our lives. Instead, we can acknowledge that spiritual forces are real, though not embodied in spiritual beings fluttering about in the sky. “The Powers That Be are not, then, simply people and their institutions …; they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures. If we want to change those systems, we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well.”
But how? How do we change the systems?
Our natural responses to being confronted by evil are reflexive: fight or flight. Flight changes nothing. Can fight change things?
“Unjust systems,” Wink writes, “perpetuate themselves by means of institutionalized violence. For example, racial segregation in the southeastern United States was supported by Jim Crow laws, state and local police, the court and penal systems, and extralegal acts of terrorism – all sustained, passively or actively, by the vast majority of white citizens. Blacks who ‘stepped out of line’ were savagely exterminated. Against such monolithic Powers it was and is tempting to use violence in response. But we have repeatedly seen how those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those who they oppose. How, then, can we overcome evil without doing evil – and becoming evil ourselves?”
Fight or flight are only two options. Jesus offers a third way that is both practical and spiritual, the way of nonviolence.
Last week, I talked about how we are invited to be co-conspirators with the Holy Spirit to bring blessings to the world. Sometimes this means confronting the powers that be. Sometimes this means confronting the evil in the world, and not just the cruel behavior of individuals, but the evil of systems that oppress and even kill.
The big challenge for me is making sure I don’t become what I’m opposing. It’s so easy to convince myself “that evil is over there among them, and only moral rightness is here among us. In this accusatory state of mind, focused so exclusively on the faults of [my] counterparts, [I] become utterly blind to [my] own deteriorating innocence and disintegrating morality.”
It is so easy to think that the evil must be destroyed; that’s what the “fight” response tells us; it is what the myth of redemptive violence tells us. Following Jesus’ third way is not easy. Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, not to destroy them. The goal is not the destruction of our enemies, but their transformation.
I don’t know how Paul figured this out, but he did. Brian McLaren wrote, “[Paul] kept reminding the disciples that they … were struggling against invisible systems and structures of evil that possess and control flesh-and-blood people. The real enemies back then and now are invisible realities like racism, greed, fear, ambition, nationalism, religious supremacy, and the like – forces that capture decent people and pull their strings as if they were puppets to make them do terrible things.” Listen again to what Paul told the Ephesians:
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
This is the armor of the nonviolent activist. This is the armor of Jesus’ third way. The power we, as disciples of Jesus, are supposed to embrace and use is Spirit Power. This is not the power of this world. This is not the power of military might. This is not the power of being ‘over’ another. This is the power that brings God’s truth and love, the only real power that can save.
Listen to McLaren again: “Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or value systems judge and accuse, the Holy Spirit inspires compassion and understanding. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or movements drive people toward harming others, the Holy Spirit leads us to boldly and compassionately stand up for those being harmed. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or ideologies spread propaganda and misinformation, the Holy Spirit boldly speaks the simply truth. Where unholy, unhealthy spirits or mind-sets spread theft, death, and destruction, God’s Holy Spirit spreads true aliveness.”
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what this looks like. Well, let me share a story. “In the spring of 1939, 47-year-old Paul Grüninger was a middle-level police official in St. Gallen, a picturesque Swiss town near the Austrian border. The son of middle-class parents who ran a local cigar shop and a mediocre student who enjoyed the soccer field more than his studies, Grüninger became an unprepossessing man of quiet conventionality. After dutifully serving time in the Swiss army in World War I, he obtained a teaching diploma, settled into a position at an elementary school, attended church on Sundays and married Alice Federer, a fellow teacher.
“To please both his mother and Alice, Grüninger applied for a better-paying position in the police department, a job that involved mainly filling out reports and arranging security details for occasional visiting dignitaries. Or so it seemed.
“In April 1939, Grüninger found his way to work blocked by a uniformed officer who told him: ‘Sir, you no longer have the right to enter these premises.’ An investigation had revealed that Grüninger was secretly altering the documents of Jews fleeing Austria for the safety of Switzerland. ‘Non-Aryan’ refugees were not allowed to cross the border after August 19, 1938, but all it took was a few strokes of Grüninger’s pen to predate the passport and perhaps save a life, a small action but one of great personal risk.
“Grüninger was dismissed from his position, ordered to turn in his uniform and subjected to criminal charges. The authorities spread false rumors that Grüninger had demanded sexual favors from those he aided. Disgraced as a law breaker and shunned by his neighbors, Grüninger peddled raincoats and animal feed until he died in poverty in 1972.”
That’s what following Jesus’ third way looks like.
And it looks like the Israeli soldier who refuses to serve if deployed to the occupied territories. And it looks like the Wall Street whistleblower who can’t find a job anymore in finance. And it looks like the Serb who kept identifying his Croat neighbors with Serbian names to keep them from getting swept up and killed during the Yugoslav Wars.
“As we walk this road together, we are being prepared and strengthened for struggle. We’re learning to cut the strings of ‘unholy spirits’ that have been our puppet masters in the past. We’re learning to be filled, led, and guided, not by a spirit of fear but by the Holy Spirit instead … a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind to face with courage whatever crises may come.”
Now, as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or
… a time where you suffered in some way for standing up for what was right, or when someone else paid a price for standing up for you, or
… the idea that racism, revenge, religious supremacy, tribalism, political partisanship, fear, or economic greed can “possess” people, or
… your life as a tree in a storm: imagine deep roots, a strong trunk, and flexible branches, and after holding this image for a few moments, ask God for the strength to stand bold and strong against whatever adversity may come.
 “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 1-2.
 Ibid, 2-3.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 7.
 Ephesians 6:11-17, NRSV.
 McLaren, op. cit.
 Thomas G. Long, “Faith Matters: Small acts of courage,” Christian Century (2 May 2012): 47.
 Susan Gardner, “Book discussion: Eyal Press’ ‘Beautiful Souls’ … and whether Edward Snowden is one of them,” Daily Kos, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/6/16/1215736/-Book-discussion-Eyal-Press-Beautiful-Souls-and-whether-Edward-Snowden-is-one-of-them (posted 16 June 2013; accessed 23 July 2016).
 McLaren, op. cit.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was such an important legal shift it has a name. Well, two names, really. I have known it as the lex talionis, but I have also seen it referenced as the jus talionis. This law is believed to have been introduced to curb violence. “Ten of yours for every one of mine,” was the typical method of retaliation. But it became “one for one” when this legal concept was introduced. “By Jesus’ time, many rabbis had recommended that such injuries should be compensated financially rather than physically.”
Jesus says, You know this rule: an eye for an eye. But I say, don’t react violently against one who is doing evil. And don’t be a doormat either. There’s a third way. Jesus offers three examples of this third way.
For his first example he says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” “You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks … [H]ow would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? … [T]he only feasible blow is a backhand.
“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.
“Notice Jesus’ audience: ‘If anyone strikes you.’ These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.’ … By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. … The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him.
“By turning the cheek, then, the ‘inferior’ is saying: ‘I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.’ …
“In that world of honor and shaming, the ‘superior’ has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, ‘The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.’”
To understand Jesus second example, it might be helpful to think about Monsanto and India. Monsanto has been accused, I think justly, of ruining the lives of many Indian farmers. They have been selling genetically modified seeds to farmers, promising higher yields and lower damage from pests and drought. The seeds are expensive. The seeds are also often sterile after one generation (farmers can’t plant next year from seeds harvested this year because they won’t germinate). And if they are still fertile, farmers had to sign contracts that they wouldn’t save seeds from one season to the next. Seeds were bought on credit with their farms as collateral; the yields weren’t as promised; farmers went into debt and lost their farms, sometimes leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan. Only the poorest of the poor were subjected to such treatment. Deuteronomy 24:10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so the poor man would have something in which to sleep.
“Jesus is not advising people to add to their disadvantage by renouncing justice altogether, as so many commentators have suggested. He is telling impoverished debtors, who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself.
“Indebtedness was a plague in first-century Palestine. Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. … His hearers are the poor (‘if any one would sue you’). They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.
“Why, then, does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27). By stripping, the debtor has brought shame on the creditor. …
“Shortly before the fall of political apartheid in South Africa, police descended on a squatters’ camp they had long wanted to demolish. They gave the few women there five minutes to gather their possessions, and then the bulldozers would level their shacks. The women, apparently sensing the residual puritanical streak in rural Afrikaners, stripped naked before the bulldozers. The police turned and fled. So far as I know, that camp still stands.”
“Going the second mile, Jesus’ third example, is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or impressed labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. Such compulsory service was a constant feature in Palestine from Persian to late Roman times. Whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service, as was Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). …
“What we have overlooked in this passage is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code. …
“It is in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks. He does not counsel revolt. One does not ‘befriend’ the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman imperial might; he certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome would soon explode into violence.
“But why carry the soldier’s pack a second mile? Does this not go to the opposite extreme by aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.
“Imagine, then, the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, ‘Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.’ Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble? … Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.”
“Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also. Both sides must win. We are summoned to pray for our enemies’ transformation, and to respond to ill treatment with a love that is not only godly but also from God.”
Jesus logically moves on to another bit of conventional wisdom: “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Only Jesus offers this radical alternative: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus says that this is necessary to be children of God.
He has just encouraged the crowd around him to claim their status of children of God by standing up to their oppressors. Now he says that standing up for yourself is not enough. Love and pray for your enemies.
But this is hard to do! Right now, I’m finding it very hard to love the Arizona legislators who passed an “it’s okay to discriminate if you do it in the name of religion” bill. I’m finding it hard to love Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad or Nicholas Muduro. Yet this is Jesus call to us.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a blessing. He starts with the beatitudes and then tells the people around him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And, so, they are called to something more. The letter of the law isn’t enough. There is another way, a way that allows them to claim their inheritance as children of God without dehumanizing others. You don’t have to put other down to lift yourself up. Then Jesus offers this conclusion: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“Be perfect. Not be pretty good, be prepared, be all that you can be. Be perfect. Not practically perfect, almost perfect, or really something. Be perfect.” I know that there are some who say the Greek doesn’t mean “perfect” the way contemporary American English uses the word today. Some say a better translation is “complete” or “finished.” I think “perfect” is the right word here.
At the end of his series of commands “extending the ethical demands of the law, Jesus does not wind up with, ‘Be mature/complete/headed in the right direction, as your Father in heaven is mature/complete/headed in the right direction.’ Rather, he says, ‘Be perfect, … as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”
But this entire chapter is crazy, so why not include this crazy call to be perfect? I mean I’ve had days that have started off pretty well. I’ve avoided being angry at people. I haven’t objectified anyone. I’ve kept all my commitments. I haven’t told even a white lie. I’ve claimed my identity as a child of God without resorting to violence. I haven’t had a hateful thought about my enemies. But then I got out of bed.
Maybe we can understand this call to be perfect as one of the elements in that list of before-rising achievements. Perhaps Jesus is taking not just seriously, but literally, the imago Dei, the image of God in which we are created. “What he seems really to be after is not an improvement in our morality, but a recasting of our theology. The challenge, one that Jesus will take up time and time again in the Gospel of Matthew, is to help us see what it means to understand God as ‘our Father in heaven.’ [The challenge here is] not the problems, although very real, of patriarchy, abuse, neglect, exploitation, and oppression that can tragically attend to the word ‘father,’ but the problem of accepting that this theology means we are God’s children. We are, Jesus implicitly argues, God’s heirs, and also God’s flesh and blood, God’s family, God’s descendants and legacy. We have more to live up to that we ever imagined.”
But before you get all overwhelmed with the burdens of this task of living up to being God’s heirs, consider this. Maybe it isn’t a task. Maybe it’s a metaphor. “Perfection is not an accumulation of good deeds, restrained actions, and pure desires. Perfection is a state of being, and if Jesus is to be believed, it is our birthright. The ‘command’ to be perfect is not a call to devout and holy action; it is an invitation to self-recognition, to a level of theological awareness that requires an embrace of the gift given at creation. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect means neither more not less than to be who we already are, in God’s image.”
I’ve been doing some reminiscing these past couple weeks. I’ve thought back about what we called “the discernment process,” back when we were two congregations trying to determine if God was calling us to merge into one. I’ve thought back about decisions that were made along the way, including the decision about which building would ultimately be our home. I’ve thought back to the plans we made to guide our process – and then revised and then revised again.
I will say this about the whole thing: it wasn’t perfect. But then I don’t think “perfect” is possible – at least not in the way we typically use the word. It was, however, one where we sought to live out our identity as children of God. The guiding question all along the way was, “Would we be able to do more ministry if we make this decision or that one?” And by “more ministry,” we meant “our part of God’s mission in the world as God’s descendants and legacy.” And in that sense, it was as perfect as possible.
Today is the last Sunday we will worship in this building as the owners of it. One Friday, the sale is scheduled to close, and next Sunday, we will worship here as renters. This is a time of transition, one that we should mark in some way, so I invite you to turn to the Litany of Release, printed on the insert in your bulletins.
A Litany of Release
One: For a dozen decades, we and our spiritual ancestors have been stewards of this land and the buildings that have stood here.
Many: For a dozen decades, we and our spiritual foreparents sought to minister in this place, living by faith and love.
One: People who live this way seek a spiritual community, build a spiritual community, bring in and embrace a spiritual community.
Many: They desire a better world, one where God’s will is done, as it is in heaven.
One: These are our spiritual foreparents. These are the old alumni.
Many: These are the ones who established, with their sweat and tears, facilities to serve God’s mission. These are the ones who taught us good stewardship, and so this facility has served us well as we have sought to serve God.
One: Yet the old hymn teaches us, “New occasions teach new duties.”
Many: And so we take another step into the future, embracing change even though it can be difficult.
One: Today, we acknowledge a change in our stewardship. At the end of this week, we will no longer be the primary stewards of this property. We will be released from this responsibility.
Many: Today, we acknowledge a change in our stewardship. At the end of this week, we will take on the new stewardship responsibility of being good neighbors to the new stewards of this property.
One: And we remember, all that we “have” isn’t really ours anyway. All that we “have” is really God’s.
Many: God places different resources into our hands at different times so that we can fulfill our part of God’s mission in the world.
One: And so we pray:
All: We thank you, O God, that you have entrusted to us and to our spiritual foreparents the care for and use of this land and buildings. We pray that you look upon this history with kindness and can say to us, “Well done.” Nurture us through these transitions. Empower us in our new duties. And bless the new owners as they become stewards of this place. Amen.
 Karen C. Sapio, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 111.
 At this point in the manuscript, I quote Walter Wink at length from his book The Powers That Be. When I was actually preaching, I simply talked, sometimes referring to my manuscript, sometimes just paraphrasing Wink.
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 101-102.
 See, for instance, Vandana Shiva, “The Seeds of Suicide: How Monsanto Destroys Farming,” Global Research, http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-seeds-of-suicide-how-monsanto-destroys-farming/5329947 (posted 27 January 2014; accessed 22 February 2014).
 Wink, op. cit., 103-106.
 Ibid, 106-108.
 Ibid, 110.
 William F. Brosend II, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 110.
 Ibid, 112.
 Ibid, 114.